The inescapable mantra across businesses (even government) today, is that the “customer” is at the core of what they do – the idea that “we live to serve”. While many organisations seek to project this image, relatively few can actually claim to be authentically customer-centric.

The challenge is to build a focus on customers into organisational DNA and get past the lip service to an ideal. We work with lots of different organisations and see a wide range of approaches, delivering varying degrees of success. However, those attempting to affect change that are genuinely nailing it demonstrate some common traits.

Organisations successfully embarking on becoming authentically customer-centric deliberately create the right operational conditions for it to happen – a hothouse to allow the flowers to bloom.

In this first part of a two-part examination of the factors for success we analyse four of the nine things that we’ve observed characterise truly customer-centric organisations: the mandate; thinking big, starting small; holding out for a hero; and what it means when the penny drops.

Nine aspects of true customer-centricity

1. The mandate
2. Thinking big, starting small
3. Holding out for a hero
4. The penny drops
5. Shared success
6. Culture (and evidence) eats strategy for breakfast
7. Data doesn’t solve people problems
8. People, process and platforms
9. Day-to-day decisions

The mandate

Becoming an authentically customer-centric organisation begins with a mandate – strong and clear leadership; goals that are easily understood, realistic and achievable; and the resources to get it done. It requires a practical and realistic vision of what being customer centric means to the organisation – not just what you want to be, but what you credibly can be.

Thinking big, starting small

We see organisations trying to change the world overnight, and it doesn’t work. But nor does it work to be locked away for a year or two to try to develop an all-encompassing solution. You need to have a big vision for what you’re doing and set out a detailed plan, but this needs to be based on a deep evidence-based understanding of the “problem” you are solving, as well as resistance to falling back on past assumptions and “the way it’s always been done”.

Be brave enough to set some lofty goals relative to your current position but design your plan to get there to be implemented in small, grounded steps – allow agile test-and-learn principles. Try something, get the feedback, and have the confidence and support mechanism to execute with minimal risk. From these foundations you can build momentum and organisational support.

The organisations we see pulling away from the pack are doing exactly this – seeking a deep understanding, taking small steps, identifying what works and why, and applying that learning to the next steps. It’s an evolution, a journey, rather than something that can be achieved by flicking a switch. Clearly mark the goals, reverse-engineer the milestones to success, and plug away at those wins.

Holding out for a hero

Although it really does help to have a hero and strong leadership to drive change programs, they can fall down if they are too reliant on any one individual. As soon as they leave, or move onto the next big thing, the project falls apart if it’s not truly ingrained in the culture of the organisation. It mirrors the general problems with silos and empire building, where a project fails to engage with the broader organisation – often adding another layer of complexity rather reducing effort across the organisation. Smart platform integration, consistent internal communications and widespread buy-in across the organisation is the key to overcoming hero dependency.

The penny drops

An organisation is only as effective as its people. Individuals need to internalise and be able to articulate the essential elements of customer-centricity in their day to day work and decision making.

While this is certainly a journey rather than a synchronous moment of realisation across an organisation, there are those individual “aha!” moments along the way when perspectives change and things come into focus.

This may begin from initial exposure to qualitative research which reconnects the individuals “within” to those individuals “outside” whom they “serve”. There really is no substitute for seeing with your own eyes that “customers” are not abstract averages, and to hear their perspectives in their own words. They’re not just numbers, they’re real people, with real issues, requiring real solutions.

We see it succeed best when organisations implement a program and quickly see tangible, measurable results. This is best achieved through modest milestone quick wins rather than aiming for grand abstract targets. The experience is transformative when those involved can see improvements in key metrics and how it impacts customer interactions. It relies on them seeing for themselves the evidence that what they are doing works. This is not just another strategy directive or marketing spin – this is real.

In part two of this series we’ll look at the final five aspects of creating a truly customer-centric organisation: how early success in building customer-centric organisations must be shared broadly; why everything must start with solid evidence for the actions that follow; the pitfalls of believing data can solve every problem; the importance of the right people, process and platforms; and how an organisation actually behaves when it has become truly client-centric.